“What the fuck am I going to do with a liberal arts degree.” Said a first year at Sarah Lawrence College in a group interview held on a bathroom floor, due to the tolerable temperature of the room compared to the high heat in the rest of the house.
After a beat, the same student turned to her friend lounging in a bathtub (fully clothed) and said, “I think Sarah Lawrence prepares you better for the world. I really feel like the great thing about Sarah Lawrence is that (you are judged on) merit.”
And yes, many first years adhere to the Sarah Lawrence approach because of the ideals of merit. Still, many of the same first years recognized, in their short experience at SLC, that evaluations did not mean there were no grades.
Yes, there are grades.
After receiving the initial “Fat Envelope”, Sarah Lawrence College’s class of 2014 entered a world that is fondly regarded as “progressive.” Sarah Lawrence does not require SAT scores and the majority of classes, offered to all grade levels, are seminar style. Grades are not printed on final assessments. A Sarah Lawrence student must request an unofficial transcript from the registrar to view grades. Writing is highly valued in both students and professors: the students exhibit their understanding through the written word and professors write out evaluations for their students.
In this realm of counterculture it is implied that self direction and inventiveness sit at a higher caliber than any grade. When scores don’t play a part in education, students can develop and learn without fearing low grades. Students do not learn to do the minimal for the best grade; young scholars develop ideas and immerse themselves in all they can.
However, this theory is not ideal, especially in a system with grades. The underground SLC grades are well hidden but they do exist.
“Professors are reluctant to present grades because of the ideals of the school but students are curious because grades do, in fact, exist.”Said James Neily, a first year at Sarah Lawrence College.
The no grades, no majors, and no exams image of Sarah Lawrence gives an inaccurate portrayal of SLC as a school of penultimate freedom. Grades “do, in fact, exist”, classes are small and rigorous, and conference papers act as a parallel for exams (a more in depth and beneficial parallel). However, grades don’t seem to fit into the ideals of the school that focus on “a deeper education” (hence the new school motto, the old being “You are different. So are we”). Do students worry about grades in an institution where the predominant focus is to be, simply, educated?
“Grade structure can be nerve racking especially when talking about graduate school but (as time goes by) this is expected to dissipate,” Said Rob Winslow, a junior at Sarah Lawrence College.
Some students do not wish to adapt to the system over time.
“Grades, for me, have always been a source of pressure. I didn’t like having grades when I had grades. But now, I would feel kind of awkward approaching my professors to ask “how am I doing?” said a first year student, planning to transfer out of SLC.
Why are students finding inquiry about grades necessary at an avant-garde place like Sarah Lawrence? This question presents the conundrum of educating yourself at a progressive school in a world where tradition is still prevalent.
“It used to be that students were discouraged from taking an interest in grades because of the college’s philosophy that evaluations are much more significant than the short hand that grades provide,” Said Daniel Licht, Sarah Lawrence College’s registrar, “Philosophically, that is still what the college believes but we do recognize there is an external world out there.”
Many attend Sarah Lawrence with the intention of attending a graduate school afterwards and the registrar is who they go to for their transcripts. In the past students looked into their grades when transcripts became necessary (for going abroad, for programs outside of SLC, or for graduate school) but, according to Licht, the interest in grades is higher now than it was ten years ago. However, the existence of grades does not take away from the philosophies of the school; they are just a necessary measure for a world that still values grades.
“Over the years the college recognized that students needed grades so grades are provided,” Said Licht, “But, it’s a sort of currency, something that you use that is portable. When you apply to graduate school, when you apply for other programs, often admissions officials in other schools don’t have the time or willingness to read through evaluations. They’d much rather look at grades and make a quicker admissions decision.”
To the delight of the school, SLC has had good fortune with student acceptances to graduate schools partly because of the analytical work done in classes: “I think graduate schools love Sarah Lawrence,” Said Ellyn Ruddick- Sunstein, an SLC sophomore.
The general consensus of the students interviewed was that Sarah Lawrence has structure but the system is freer (more progressive, if you will) than other institutions. Some seek more structure.
“The freedom we have here needs self motivation,” Said Winslow.
Breaking away from the mold of definitive numbers is one that is painful for some and may contribute to the number of transfers after the first year. Still, many develop the ability to gauge their own performance.
“You’ll know if you’re not doing well,” Said Ruddick- Sunstein.
If a student obtains the ability to articulate thoughts efficiently, analyze ideas, and self motivate, the goals that Sarah Lawrence claims to have will be met. At Sarah Lawrence, the goal should not be the grade.
“Grades, in a way, are sold as objective measures of student performance because they are easy to look over and quickly make decisions, but they are really not objective measures. They are subjective measures on a standardized scale. They can’t be as meaningful to students as the thoughtful comments the faculty writes in evaluations,” Said Licht.
Those that worry about the future are comforted with the idea, supported by the administration, that they are preparing themselves and that grades are not a defining factor for the future. And those that continue to be concerned can rest assured that they will be graded.
For varying opinions: